School board urges basic 'blocking and tackling' as first step toward special-ed reform

Trustees, parents react to much-anticipated special-education review

Palo Alto school board members urged district staff Tuesday morning to seek concrete, specific data on how well the district is or isn't meeting the needs of special-needs students and to improve the fundamentals of its program — the "basic blocking and tackling," one trustee said — before attempting any programmatic changes.

Their comments came after a presentation on the much-anticipated results of a recent review of its special-education services, which was conducted by a team of Harvard University researchers. District leaders provided their perspectives on next steps for the district, including defining the purpose and goals of special education and potentially bringing a new instructional approach to the district, called Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Many special-education parents also shared personal anecdotes about the devastating impact that delays of services, miscommunication, insufficient training and a "wait to fail" model can have on children with special needs -- issues that were laid out in the analysis.

While noting the positive findings in the report, including high rates of inclusion of special-needs students in general education classrooms, board members also voiced serious concern about the state of special-education in Palo Alto.

"I think until we get our hands around the very basics and fundamentals of delivering special education services, I think talk about fully inclusive communities and UDL and different frameworks maybe should be put aside until we can identify the clear success metrics, measure whether we are hitting them or not and if we're not — and I expect we're not — figure out the exact things we need to do and the money we need to spend in order to achieve that," new board member Todd Collins said.

Board member Terry Godfrey said she believes some teachers are not "legally compliant" in providing students' with appropriate accommodations, particularly in high school. Member Ken Dauber said he has been "dissatisfied" with the district's progress on improving relationships with special-education families. And Collins, himself a parent of a special-needs child, said he was "disappointed" with the report, which failed to address the "key issues that I'm aware of in special education in our district," he said.

The board members asked for more specific data on how the district is setting, meeting and monitoring goals for students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 plans (which refer to Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guarantees certain rights in public schools to students with disabilities and their parents). They queried staff on the district's quality and quantity of teacher training on special education and on research-based practices that are — or aren't — in place to guide classroom instruction and interventions.

They urged more proactive tracking and evaluation of interventions put in place, both for individual students and at the program level, such as a major investment over the last several years in increasing the number of co-taught classrooms in the district (which are led by both a general- and special-education teacher in an effort to include more special-needs students in mainstream classes).

Member Melissa Baten Caswell noted that the district is still grappling with many of the same issues identified in a report on special-education nine years ago. She asked staff for a specific plan for what they hope to address first, and how.

"I'd like to get down to the meat of it," she said.

Dauber said he is still looking for a report, either from the same researchers who conducted this one or from district staff, that provides a higher level of detail and analysis.

Their comments echoed a perspective shared by the parent-led Community Advisory Committee (CAC), which advocates for and supports special-education families, that the review did not deliver the "fine-tuned" analysis they had initially requested and expected.

"Would we have liked to see more from this review? Absolutely," said CAC Chair Kimberly Eng Lee. "But this review can inform the work that lies ahead and point leadership to developing a clear vision.

"We believe it is only through transparency and delivery of measurable progress that parental trust and satisfaction will increase," Lee said, "and more importantly that the students will become the thriving learners and citizens we all want them to be."

Parents of students with a range disabilities, from dyslexia to autism, commended the district for undertaking an evaluation of its services — a "mark of true leadership to undergo a self-evaluation," one said — but described often unending frustration with inadequate services and low expectations for their children.

Parent Leigh Metzler, holding a framed photograph of her son and choking back tears, described the impact of what the review described as a "wait to fail model that that tends to delay evaluation of learning disabilities until students have failed to make progress."

In the four years and 10 months between receiving an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnosis to getting a 504 plan in Palo Alto Unified, Metzler said her son evolved from a smart, capable student who planned to become a computer-game designer after college to a clinically depressed, suicidal middle school student who "felt like he didn't have a chance to succeed anymore."

"This is what happens when you wait to take care of these kids," she said. "They give up on themselves."

Several parents described having to leave the district altogether and to seek private, outside help after negative experiences.

Cindy Greg said she pulled her special-needs daughter out of Palo Alto High School as a freshman "based on the complete lack of follow-through and understanding of her needs" and a "blatant disregard for her rights under fair and appropriate education."

The family is now paying for her to attend a separate educational facility, Greg said.

She and others urged the district to conduct exit interviews with special-education parents who leave the district and to track those numbers.

Parent Eugene Chow, who said his family moved to the district last year specifically for "inclusion," described a mixed experience — a strong commitment from staff to support children with special needs and high-quality resources but also a lack of trust and inclusivity in the process.

"We felt not listened to," he said. "We repeatedly felt lawyers lurking behind the staff, making it very difficult for teachers and staff to honestly participate in the meetings."

He said he felt even brief, more informal check-in meetings with teachers and staff were discouraged.

"We would much rather hear, 'Let's do what we can together,'" Chow said.

The report recommended creating a parent handbook that lays out the district's goals, available services and options for parents as one step toward increasing communication and trust. One parent urged the district to also create a website with this information, which could be easily disseminated and updated quickly.

The higher-level strategic goals are commendable, the parent said, but she urged the board to not get "caught up" in them and instead look for more immediate changes that would make a difference.

Other parents suggested additional areas of focus for the district to consider: the mental health of students with disabilities, the perspective of the students themselves and the addition of early screening for all children, among others.

District staff presented a broad plan for improvement, including pursuing four of the five recommendations from the external review. They also proposed a new "framework" to anchor this work, described as a "multi-tiered system of support" that would bring general and special-education closer together to provide support and services to all students.

The board had limited time Tuesday to discuss the report — only about 20 minutes — and shared their comments and questions without any response from staff, given the time restraint. They also postponed a discussion on the district's Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP) that had been scheduled for the same meeting.

The board will next discuss the review at a retreat in late January that will focus on districtwide goal-setting.

Superintendent Max McGee said he feels a "real sense of urgency" for prioritizing the district's next steps on special education.

"We know we do some things well," he said. "We do have pockets of excellence, but we don't want to have pockets of excellence. We have to have a full-fledged, three-piece suit of excellence."


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7 people like this
Posted by Gunn Fann
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 14, 2016 at 8:10 am

Yes, please focus on what's important, and stop the knee-jerk changing of Gunn for the sake of change only.

11 people like this
Posted by 504 SOS
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 14, 2016 at 8:56 am

I strongly want to echo the statements above from Cindy Greg and Eugene Chao. Well said.

I also want to strongly suggest the district take 504s out of special ed and handle them in a different way, with different people. Medical 594s are routinely and antagonistically mishandled by special ed. It's just not appropriate to lump them in with special ed. Where they overlap with IEPs, it would help the students to have someone in their corner already.

All of this will be for naught unless McGee gets tough and removes the last of the old guard influences from the district office. There is too much water under the bridge, and one employee who seems to live to set off drama and conflict in people around while that person looks on cool as a cucumber, with power and willingness to knive people and their kids in the back in retaliation if they complain. All the talk and rearranging the administrative deck chairs will not right this ship unless we restore trust, and that cannot happen with untrustworthy people. Open your eyes and ears, McGee, you aren't hearing the parents, at least not without the CYA crowd whispering in your ear.

14 people like this
Posted by Mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 14, 2016 at 11:09 am

PAUSD needs to be careful in drawing the fine line between who gets fully included into General Education classes and who gets put into Special Day classes. I know of particular situations where very difficult, disruptive students are put into a GenEd class -- perhaps with an Aide for support -- but it makes a mess of the instructional environment for the other 30 or so students in the class. The "Full Inclusion" model pushed by the Harvard team needs to be tempered with some common sense. I urge parents of GenEd students to keep an eye out.

1 person likes this
Posted by sanity?
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 14, 2016 at 1:50 pm

"I also want to strongly suggest the district take 504s out of special ed and handle them in a different way, with different people. "

Oooh, that's a good idea. Handle IEPs separately to Special Ed.

There's a whole spectrum of IEPs here and, similar to UCP, lumping it all together under one roof leaves little room for those that don't need the whole thing while massively overloading the department so they can't deal with those that desperately need it.

11 people like this
Posted by Concerned Educator
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 14, 2016 at 4:58 pm

Without a thorough understanding of the federal and state laws within which all special education decisions and services are bound, these types of meetings are pointless. Evidence from yesterday's meeting abounded as both board members and community members lack of knowledge of these topics was obvious. Moreover, recommendations from the Harvard review cannot be implemented as given, as the data is not disaggregated by school level or by disability. The experience of a general ed. high school history teacher would be quite different from a kindergarten specialized academic class, and that type of information was not analyzed in so far as was distributed thus far.

3 people like this
Posted by 504 SOS
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 15, 2016 at 9:03 am

Your post is strong evidence in support of my suggestion that the district take 504s out of special ed entirely and handle them in a different way entirely, with different people. Even the parents of special ed parents don't seem to understand that 504 is a broad category that covers a lot of special needs kids who DON'T get or need IEPs. IEPs and 504s are different. Where kids with 504s also need IEPs, the IEPs should be handled by special ed, because that's their purview. The trouble is that medical 504s especially are getting short shrift in special ed. The needs of kids with other kinds of barriers besides learning disabilities get treated like they are unimportant and beside the point by special ed. They get shoehorned in, if they get dealt with at all, as the report and your post demonstrate.

504s should be handled by people who are not just handling them as an afterthought, but by people who understand the needs and accommodations, and who are trying to help. The special ed people understand learning disabilities. Despite all the special ed department problems in need of solving, my experience and that of others I know is that IEPs are handled far better than medical 504s, and parents of kids with learning disabilities are far happier than parents of kids who have extended illnesses or other medical barriers needing accommodation (which would be handled by 504). Further evidence of this second-class status, beyond Hehir almost ignoring 504s in the report and your confusing 504s and IEPs, is the escalated legal conflicts in the district have tended to involve medical/physical accommodations/504s rather than mainly learning disabilities/IEPs.

It's the same even in parent meetings. Other parents don't even understand why the parents with 504 problems but without LD kids are there. The parents groups even don't accord the same help and understanding to 504 families. The main help list in the area online has been known to even kick out parents seeking help whose kids had 504s but didn't need IEPs - but who nevertheless needed accommodations under the law to attend school and had the same or worse troubles with special ed departments. There is no group for 504 parents, because the 504s are shoehorned in as the fifth wheel under special ed. In order to adequately accommodate 504s, the district needs to give 504s to people who know how to help and actually want to. Since special ed has a wait to fail model, this approach utterly violates the law with 504 accommodations, it's evidence of the law being violated. What usually happens is that kids' futures and emotional health are damaged, or even their physical health.

I would strongly suggest you learn the difference between the IEP population and 504. There is overlap, but not enough to justify the damage to 504 kids being treated as an unwelcome afterthought. The 504s should be taken care of by a different department, and where there is overlap for some kids, it needs to be a team effort between special ed and the department whose priority and expertise is 504s.

4 people like this
Posted by 504 SOS
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 15, 2016 at 9:08 am

My sincerest apologies. I read your post initially as sarcasm. Now I see that you are agreeing with my point emphatically. And yes, that's exactly it. When special ed is overloaded by kids who need services they can't handle well, it compromises how they handle the kids they ordinarily would handle well.

The district should take 504s away from special ed and handle them separately by people who know what they are doing and care.

6 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 15, 2016 at 4:02 pm

the overarching problem is that special ed, rather than really trying to help kids, tries to avoid doing so. In addition, the resource teacher at our school knows very little about special education, and the principal does her best to avoid giving children appropriate services. it is a system that conspires to pass the buck and push kids along until they fall apart.

12 people like this
Posted by Board, Interrupted
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 15, 2016 at 9:12 pm

The board is hopelessly befuddled if they are asking staffers how well they are delivering services.

The board should be telling staffers how they expect services to be delivered.

As a parent of two 504 kids, it is plainly obvious that the schools strategy is to do the least possible:

- delay diagnosis as long as possible

- stall any process as long as possible

- negotiate down the services offered to the lowest possible

- teachers deny any services.

Because this is (a) coordinated across departments within the schools. (B) clearly understood by the principals, and (c) happening uniformly across schools, one must conclude there is a district strategy coordinating and driving this goal.

The board should ask why that is happening, and who is coordinating this strategy.

That would be a useful Board inquiry. Not this useless, clueless dim witted questioning we see here. They act like they don't set policy or strategy, and have abdicated, once again, to a district that does not share the same goals.

Bad Board.

5 people like this
Posted by educator
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 16, 2016 at 11:15 am

Mutti's comment is the most pressing to me as a classroom aide.

Ask your child what they experience. You will be seeing more and more disruptions in class due to the district's Full Inclusion mantra. The people making these well-intentioned decisions are not the people in the trenches figuring out how it works day by day. And guess who's most in the trenches, suffering outbursts or teacher attention sometimes harried by the litigious threats of a select few special ed parents? Your general ed child.

Don't shoot the messenger. This train has left the station. .

8 people like this
Posted by graduated parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 17, 2016 at 9:30 am

So unfortunate that Skelly dismantled the fine and compassionate Special Ed department that was in existence at Gunn and Terman when my children were there. We miss those teachers and the administrator. (~2007-2011) He did not know how much it would be hurting the education of those students to drive experienced personnel out.

2 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 3, 2017 at 1:58 pm

I echo what Board, interrupted says above.

What is so very interesting to me is how universal these dysfunctional policies are. They are so consistent, that is really does suggest that this is a coordinated effort that absolutely must come from the top. Is it Holly Wade? Is it Chiara Perry. My guess is that it is Holly Wade, backed up by her legal team.

The big weakness on the parent side is that we are all individual families fighting our battles to protect our vulnerable children, and we have very little power against this monolithic, powerful entity. Fighting the district through the legal system is very costly- both financially and emotionally.

I feel like there should be a union or some other body of parents really fighting in a more unified way together to make things better- no one else seems to really want to do it.

1 person likes this
Posted by 504 SOS
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 4, 2017 at 1:48 am

I agree. But "should" willnot happen by asking. If you want change, you will have to create it with fellow parents. Since our school district leadership is formed through our City charter (kind of like the City constitution), the thing to do would be to create an ombuds position or some kind of office of oversight that has City power over the district and answers to residents and families directly. In some cities, the school district answers to the Mayor's office. Making a City charter amendment isn't as hard as it sounds and could be in place by next year if you start now.

I think Chiara Perry came on board after the problems began. I'm not saying she isn't part of it now, but she didn't cause it. I think the problem is Holly Wade, Brenda Carrillo and legal and the culture they create, in which the school psychologists, instead of being there to simply do what it takes to help every child (yes, Finnish model slogan), engender mistrust by acting as hitmen for the legalistic maneuvering against families. This is an unholy and unhealthy conflict: asking staff whose job is to ensure the mental health of children to be both defense and (mostly) prosecution. Thus, No way can affected families ever trust the schools. I speak from experience that it can not only mean kids don't feel connection to schools, they don't trust the adults - especially not the counselors - and can even feel unsafe. A system that actively creates such a situation with no mechanisms to catch and fix the damage, is a system in which the surprising amount of sexual abuse (that we know of) can flourish unchecked, along with other ills.

But the real problem is that whoever started the pernicious culture and practices, the current leadership isn't willing to get to the root and get honest.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove

on Sep 26, 2017 at 7:18 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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